I learned a while ago that the word “radical” is something you tend to see tacked onto the heading of a press release when the author wants to give some welly to his/her less-than-exciting news angle.
So today’s collection of effervescent media outpourings about the Public Service (Social Value) Act – several of them using the word “radical” – had the effect that you might expect: I found myself less than excited.
From the office of Chris White MP, author of the Act, thundered the press release: “Radical Act to change public sector procurement implemented today.”
Mr White secured the Act through the Private Member’s Bill procedure and has been raising awareness through media appearances, speaking at conferences across the country and meeting with commissioners, local authorities and community organisations for many months. Today he hosted a roundtable meeting of civil society leaders in Westminster and tomorrow he will speak about the Act at a major event for the SROI Network in Liverpool.
White has actually been very impressive throughout the process, and clearly believes there are big opportunities: “The Public Services (Social Value) Act has fantastic potential to make commissioning by public bodies smarter and deliver change that can benefit our communities,” he says. “I believe that this could lead to more charities, social enterprises and socially responsible businesses delivering public services – increasing diversity in public service provision and supporting organisations which are rooted in our communities to deliver the important services we all use.”
So, what exactly does the Act do?
It asks public bodies to consider how they might use public service contracts to improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of our communities.
It is now a legal obligation for local authorities, the NHS and other public bodies to consider the social good offered by bidders during the procurement process, alongside price and quality.
Excellent. But that word “consider” worries me. I “considered” doing a good thing and calling my mother this morning on the way to work. But I listened to an interesting radio programme instead.
Who is supporting the Act?
It has received support across the political spectrum as well as organisations such as Social Enterprise UK, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action and the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations.
Senior figures from the charity, social enterprise and community sectors including NCVO, SEUK, ACEVO, Co-operatives UK, NAVCA, Community Matters and New Philanthropy Capital are meeting in Westminster today to discuss how they can work together to support implementation of the Act and encourage public sector bodies to work with communities to deliver better public services.
Great. We love senior figures in meetings. They’re bound to agree on what to do next (and remember to make it happen).
What are the opportunities?
Charity social enterprise law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite believes the Act is good news for society so long as public sector leaders and commissioners can prove they have considered social value.
Julian Blake, partner at BWB, says: “An obligation ‘to consider’ social value is meaningful. It is a forceful prompt to commissioners to be more purpose driven and creative in achieving the best value service provision."
The provision of public services has been steadily outsourced over the years and is now worth £82bn a year, says BWB. This is predicted to rise to £140bn by 2014 – meaning that more than half of the annual £236bn public service budget will be spent on independent providers.
Going forward, says BWB, there are principles to build on for drafting social value into procurement specifications. And European Commission guidance sets out a range of potential social value benefits, such as employment opportunities, social inclusion and support for SMEs.
Do we trust local authorities to take this seriously?
Serendipity struck today as a survey by Ipsos MORI revealed that we actually trust councils to take good decisions.
The public are concerned about cuts to council services, but the survey indicates that we don’t necessarily hold councils to blame.
The survey, commissioned by localism think-tank NLGN, found that eight in 10 (79%) people trusted their local council to make the important decisions, compared to just one in 10 (11%) who trust the government to.
Good news for the way in which councils will implement the Act!
The poll should embolden councils to drive forward innovative new approaches to service delivery to cope with unprecedented cuts in their Whitehall grants, with further spending reductions expected after the next election.
NLGN director Simon Parker said: “Councils might be surprised to learn that most voters are ignoring criticisms from Eric Pickles. Residents appear overwhelmingly to recognise that shrinking budgets are the result of national policy, not local profligacy. But the cuts are not going to go away, so councils must get on the front foot and speed up the development of new service offerings that can maintain quality for much less money.”
Where do we go from here?
I remember similar excitement over “radical” legislation introduced in the 1999 Local Government Act.
This Labour-sponsored legislation, which came into force in April 2000, introduced the idea of “Best Value”, and aimed to improve local services in terms of both cost and quality.
This replaced something called Compulsory Competitive Tendering (the Tory version, known as CCT), which dogmatically focused on competition.
Interestingly, the idea of Best Value was that public services should consider a broader range of values than simply their cost when procurement decisions were being made. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?...
Let’s get back to that word “radical”.
If you look up the word in a dictionary you will see that it refers to the “root” of something.
Even the non-gardeners among us will know a couple of things about roots:
1. They require care, nourishment, good soil and a decent climate to stay healthy (politicians and commissioners who are frosty to the idea of social enterprise, please take note)
2. What happens below ground rarely looks like whatever sprouts above the surface.
We may think we know what the Social Value Act will produce once the roots have sprouted. But we thought we knew about Best Value back in 2000. A meeting of all the umbrella body CEOs today is a good start (if anybody agrees on anything).
But a sustained, organised and collaborative campaign must continue if these roots are to blossom and grow social value in our communities rather than wither away under the disinterested eye of money-conscious commissioners and the mighty competition of the private sector.
Some useful signposts
Chris White will be speaking at the SROI members’ Exchange tomorrow, 1 February, in Liverpool. www.thesroinetwork.org
The E3M Network is holding its European Conference and Exhibition, Growing Successful Social Enterprise: Lessons and Opportunities, on 4-5 March. www.successfulsocialenterprise.eu
Details of the NLGN survey about local authority decision making are available at: www.nlgn.org.uk